Staying Grounded: Coping with Grief in Addiction Recovery

Dealing with loss is hard no matter where someone is in their life. When someone is also struggling with addiction, grief can be especially difficult to process. People use substances to treat the negative feelings associated with loss, and it leads to more shame and sadness, which brings them back to using. If left untreated, the cycle can perpetuate indefinitely.

Grief can worsen existing substance use disorders and can also push those in recovery to relapse. Sometimes the effects of loss are more overt, other times they can manifest in subtler ways. Even if a loss occurred in the distant past, such as the death a parent during childhood, someone may still be living with the symptoms of unprocessed grief.

Loss can Take Many Forms

When discussing the intersection of grief and recovery, it’s important to note that there are different types of loss. The loss of a loved one is one of the most painful types of loss, but losing pets, jobs, residences, relationships, and other things can also initiate cycles of grief.

There are many ways grief can impact someone’s mental or physical health, some symptoms more obvious than others. When someone is grieving, they may become anxious or depressed, even if they hadn’t experienced those conditions before. Headaches, stomach aches, nausea, insomnia, and other symptoms can also arise.

According to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the seven official stages of grief are shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. Not everyone experiences these exact symptoms, but it can be helpful for those dealing with loss to be acquainted with these responses and how to address them.

Those Struggling with Addiction Have Greater Odds of Facing Loss

What is the role of grief in addiction? Because of the inherent dangers of alcoholism and substance use disorders, people in these populations tend to encounter greater amounts of loss. People battling opioid addiction very commonly report knowing a friend, loved one, or acquaintance who has died of an overdose. Losing other important aspects of one’s life, such as homes, jobs, cars, and relationships are also unfortunately common for people struggling with addiction.

Because of the stigma associated with addiction, deaths that result from overdoses or other drug related causes are sometimes met with what’s called “disenfranchised grief.” This occurs when a grieving person is not given the respect or compassion they otherwise might have been given because the person they lost was seen as dishonorable due to their lifestyle or the conditions of their death. It’s important for those supporting someone going through this type of loss to understand that drug-related deaths are due the same grief and respect as any other passing.

The Trauma of Unprocessed Grief Doesn’t Go Away

Because grief can be a complex and difficult thing to process, it’s usually best treated with the care of a professional therapist or counselor. In the absence of professional help, speaking with a trusted friend or loved one can be useful. Activities like journaling, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness can also help someone process the sadness and other uncomfortable feelings brought on by loss. When masked with substances, though, grief and addiction can perpetuate a perpetual cycle of shame and dependency.

For those dealing with loss, it’s important to remember that there’s no expected timeline for healing. Everyone grieves at their own pace, and no one should ever be made to feel like they “should be over this by now.”

Recovery From Grief is Within Reach

At New England Recovery Center, we understand the impact loss can have on those struggling with addiction. To meet this treatment need, we developed a grief and loss curriculum that helps clients process their grief while treating their addiction. Offered in both group and one-on-one settings, this curriculum gives clients insights into different aspects of the grief cycle and provides effective coping mechanisms to help address symptoms as they arise.

Grieving a loss is always painful, but nobody should have to bear that pain alone. By reaching out and asking for help, those who are using substances to cope with their grief can initiate the process of healing.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or co-occurring disorders, call the New England Recovery Center today at 1-877-MyRehab. 

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